FiltraCycle is a young business that turns cigarette waste into a sustainable source of plastic. ThinkBusiness talks to Liam Lysaght, co-founder and CEO about their plans to solve one of the world’s most dangerous litter problems.
What led you to set up FiltraCycle?
The three co-founders; myself, Marc Bollée and Harry Jankola, went to boarding school together. We had always wanted to start a business together one day. I’m a Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineer, about to graduate from Trinity. Marc was a Chemistry student when we started up and is now a Math’s student and Harry is an International Business student.
“Cigarette butts are one of the most environmentally devastating forms of waste someone can produce and they’re everywhere. It became very difficult for us to focus on any other idea”
Initially, we thought cigarette butts would be a free resource we could use for manufacturing packing peanuts and maybe make a business out of it. But when we started digging into the problem, we found out that each cigarette butt poisons 1,000 litres of water. Most people don’t know that cigarette butts contain plastic which unravels into micro plastic fibres that have been soaked in nicotine and tar. Cigarette butts are one of the most environmentally devastating forms of waste someone can produce and they’re everywhere. It became very difficult for us to focus on any other idea.
What makes your company different?
There are a couple of companies that recycle cigarette butts but often they peel them by hand to get the plastic out or they can’t separate the plastic from the paper, so leave the paper and all the toxins in, compress it and wrap it in petroleum plastic so the toxic chemicals don’t leak.
FiltraCycle co-founder Liam Lysaght
“Making one small product, like a pair of sunglasses out of our plastic saves the equivalent of a swimming pool of water from being polluted by nicotine and micro plastic. Obviously, that has value for consumer brands”
What makes us stand out is that we’ve developed a process where we separate out the plastic properly and clean it so it can be used in consumer products. The reason we do that is because cigarette butts are very toxic. Making one small product, like a pair of sunglasses out of our plastic saves the equivalent of a swimming pool of water from being polluted by nicotine and micro plastic. Obviously, that has value for consumer brands. We’re a business facing company, we sell the raw material that brands can use to make their products more sustainable and appeal to the modern consumer.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges is health and safety. We recycle a very toxic material that has to be treated like it’s radioactive. That’s the one area of the budget we never cut corners on.
“What makes us stand out is that we’ve developed a process where we separate out the plastic properly and clean it, so it can be used in consumer products”
It is difficult to scale up from a lab scale. We recently finished an industrial pilot of our process where we recycled more than 250,000 cigarette butts. The jump from having a lab in my parent’s garden to an industrial facility, where we have to install electricals, take readings of chemicals, set up machines and pumps etc., is a big step up.
Another challenge was balancing college with running our pilot. The pilot was a 9-to-5 job; running machines, fixing problems and operating the production line. Initially, we thought we’d be able to do the pilot in a month. It took five months, not counting the time to design it. But we managed to watch our lectures while monitoring machines in the factory.
“We want to build a facility that will recycle 1.6 million cigarette butts a day. That would let us recycle about 10pc of the cigarette butts produced in Ireland every year”
Did the pandemic impact your business and how did you adapt?
For most people, the pandemic has been a kick in the teeth. But were it not for the fact that our lectures were online, we simply wouldn’t have been able to run the pilot. We wouldn’t have been able to start the pilot until exams and lectures were finished at the end of May. We’d be nine months behind where we are now.
“The jump from working in my parent’s garden to an industrial facility, where we have to install electricals, take readings of chemicals, set up machines and pumps etc., is a big step up”
Because the chemicals we’re dealing with from the cigarette butts are so toxic, we were already wearing respirators and full PPE gear, so we were extremely COVID safe, even before restrictions.
What supports did you receive to set up your business and how could support for entrepreneurs be improved?
We got into the Trinity LaunchBox programme and that helped a lot. Until then, our lab was in my parent’s garden. We got mentoring and help with writing a business plan. Our technology was very well developed but the business side of running a start-up was missing. We learned that from LaunchBox and Climate-KIC, an EU accelerator programme. We also got support from the DIT accelerator.
“There’s plenty of funding there, if you can pitch competitively for it”
There are lots of programmes that most start-ups are eligible for. There are a few we couldn’t apply for because we’re not a software start-up. But for the most part, there’s plenty of funding there, if you can pitch competitively for it. Competing for funding can be a barrier for a lot of start-ups. For us, it was a blessing in disguise. We were strongly incentivised to make progress; justifying our business idea to people who were considering giving us money, brought us to another level. We had to prove that we could build a business from it and that it would be profitable.
What was the most important thing you learnt and what would you pass on to other businesses?
The most important thing to know when starting a business is that the normal course of events is to have nine failures for every one success. That can be fairly difficult to deal with. You can spend three days on an accelerator, certain you’re going to get through and then you don’t. All you can do is shrug your shoulders and keep working on the next one. It can be difficult but it’s also normal.
“The most important thing to know when starting a business is that the normal course of events is to have nine failures for every one success”
People need to have motivation beyond wanting to be business successful. If you want to make money so you can be comfortable, then the start-up lifestyle is not for you.
What are your plans for the future?
Our biggest goal is to build a commercial scale recycling facility in Dublin. We proved that our process works on a large scale through our pilot. Now we want to build a facility that will recycle 1.6 million cigarette butts a day. That would let us recycle about 10% of the cigarette butts being produced in Ireland every year.
Four trillion cigarette butts end up as litter every year. Each one of those will poison about 1,000 litres of water, which is equivalent to all the water in the Irish Sea. If we can build our commercial facility using our recycling process and demonstrate that it works and can be profitable, we hope to build more recycling facilities and collection networks across Europe, to start to make a dent in the problem globally.
Main image at top (from left): FiltraCycle co-founders Harry Jankola, Marc Bollée and Liam Lysaght
Interview by Olivia McGill
Published: 11 May 2021